By Laura MacInnis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to emphasize his Christian faith on Thursday, telling a key election-year voting bloc that he prays every morning and has crafted elements of his economic policies in line with Jesus' teachings.
Obama, who rarely goes to church and speaks far less about his religion than his White House predecessors, told about 3,000 people at a National Prayer Breakfast that the challenges facing the United States required him to listen to God, avoid "phony religiosity," and pursue "bold action" in the face of resistance or indifference.
"I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion," Obama told the annual gathering at a Washington hotel, also saying that pastors periodically stop by the Oval Office, phone him and send emails so they can pray together.
"I don't stop there. I'd be remiss if I stopped there, if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends," he said. "I must try to make sure that those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation."
American voters care deeply about religion, with two-thirds saying it is important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs.
When he emerged on the national stage, many Americans were uncertain about Obama's religion and as many as one in five thought he was a Muslim. The president has previously said that although he did not grow up in a religious household, he became a Christian as an adult "by choice."
On Thursday, he described a 2010 meeting with evangelical leader Billy Graham as transformative to his religious thinking, saying he had "prayed from the heart" at Graham's North Carolina retreat and frequently thereafter.
"I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment - asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation and in the values that hold us together and keep us strong," he said.
OBAMA CITES 'BIBLICAL CALL'
Mitt Romney, Obama's most likely opponent in the November 6 election, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose followers known as Mormons espouse socially conservative values and believe Christ appeared to founder Joseph Smith in America.
Obama, a Democrat, did not reference Romney in his remarks to the prayer breakfast but emphasized his own attention to the poor and fight against inequality. He was clearly trying to draw a contrast with the Republican front-runner, who was widely criticized on Wednesday for saying he was "not concerned about the very poor."
Obama cloaked his economic platform - including a push for higher taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans in Congress have resisted - in religious scripture, adding a new layer to his re-election stump speech.
"I actually think that's going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,'" he said, also referencing "the biblical call" to help poor and marginalized people as reason for his foreign aid choices.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who ended his White House run last month, had accused Obama on the campaign trail of leading a "war on religion," saying the president's decision to support gay rights overseas was "not in America's interest and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money."
Obama avoided mention in his prayer breakfast remarks of his administration's new rule requiring religiously affiliated non-profit groups to provide birth control to women, a decision that spurred fury from social conservatives and the Catholic Church.
Later on Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney sought to blunt criticism about the policy, which Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner decried as "unconstitutional."
"The policy does not require any individual to take or provide or prescribe contraception. It simply requires employers to offer insurance coverage that provides that," Carney told reporters. "It is not requiring any individual to in any way violate his or her conscience."
(Additional reporting by Samson Reiny, Thomas Ferraro and Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Deborah Charles and Eric Beech)